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Feed Yourself, Feed The Soil

Once you start harvesting the fruits of your labor, you'll have a surplus of kitchen scraps to dispose of. If you treat them like garbage, they'll reciprocate by helping to trash the planet; when we send our organic matter to the landfill, it decomposes and emits methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas.

But those kitchen scraps still have unspent culinary currency--why let it go to waste? You may know about "black gold," the nutrient-rich soil amendment that you'll get when you convert your organic matter to compost. But you can also turn your veggie scraps into a tasty soup stock that's better than anything you can buy at the store.

We're so used to keeping quarts of broth on hand to speed up meal prep that we don't even realize how easy it is to throw a bunch of scraps in a pot of water. Making your own soup stock is so simple that the New York Time's Minimalist Mark Bittman recently declared that we all ought to banish bouillon cubes and canned stock from our pantries and start making our own stocks from scratch. Bittman's advice: "simmer a carrot, a celery stalk and half an onion in a couple of cups of water for 10 minutes and you’re better off..."

What you may not realize is that you can achieve the same results with the leftover peelings and trimmings that pile up when you're prepping a meal. As Lorna Sass writes in The Complete Vegetarian Kitchen:

Vegetable stock is the city cook's best alternative to the compost pile. Don't throw away all of those vegetable peels (if organic) and trimmings, corncobs, limp carrots, celery sticks, those half-used onions and unused herb stalks. They still have good flavor. Get in the habit of collecting them in the refrigerator (up to four days) or freezer (up to three months) until you have enough bits and pieces to make a tasty broth."

In this era of rising food costs, does it really make sense to throw all this stuff away and keep buying broth? Here's a list from Sass on which vegetable scraps work best:

~ Asparagus and broccoli stalks

~ Celery, parsnip, and carrot chunks, peelings, and trimmings

~ Corncobs and husks

~ Garlic (unpeeled, and crushed)

~ Kale stalks (for a strong, distinctive flavor like cabbage)

~ Leek greens and roots

~ Onions (unpeeled for a darker stock)

~ Potatoes and potato peelings (remove any green spots)

~ Scallions (including root ends)

~ Sweet potatoes, apples or pears (for a slightly sweet stock)

~ Tomatoes or lemon slices (for a slightly acid stock)

~ Turnips (peel to avoid bitterness)

~ Wilted celery, lettuce, and watercress

~ Winter squash (avoid waxed peels)

~ Zucchini

Here's what not to add:

~ Beets and beet peelings (unless you want a magenta-colored stock)

~ Green peppers, eggplant, and leafy greens such as collards and mustard (they can impart a bitter taste)

~ Most members of the cabbage family, such as cabbage and brussels sprouts (they easily overpower the stock)

~ Turnip peels (they're bitter)

Do throw in some bay leaves, peppercorns or whatever other herbs you like and simmer for anywhere from 10 minutes, à la Bittman, or up to an hour, as Sass recommends. Strain and use within a few days or freeze for several months.

OK, now your scraps truly are spent, as far as you're concerned. But you've still got the makings of a meal, if you're a worm or a microbe. When you toss your used trimmings in the compost heap or the worm bin, the cycle begins again--the end result will be a nutrient-rich fertilizer to help your next batch of seedlings grow.

There's a wide range of composters to choose from; if you've got some outdoor space you can go as simple as a mesh wire bin or splurge on a fancy tumbling composter that will speed things up, if you don't want to wait and just let nature take its course. Enclosed composters are recommended to keep out hungry critters--an elevated tumbler-style bin may work better yet.

For the adventurous urban homesteader, red wigglers are the way to go. Find out more about vermicomposting from the Lower East Side Ecology Center, which sells worm bins and collects New York residents' food scraps at the Union Square Greenmarket and turns them into compost and potting soil. It's called a closed loop. And isn't that what a food chain's supposed to be?